Twitter: The good, the bad and need for filtering

This is a repost from Tech Leader.

I first came across Twitter, the micro-blogging service, in 2006 when I was living in San Francisco. Up until quite recently I resisted using it for the simple reason that I didn’t think I needed to. I was also worried about the concomitant information overload and time consumption that Twitter inevitably brings with it.

But then I read How Twitter Creates a Social Sixth Sense by Clive Thompson, who describes it as a form of “social proprioception”. Proprioception is the way one’s body knows where its limbs are and senses the stimuli from its environment.

“That subliminal sense of orientation is crucial for coordination: It keeps you from accidentally bumping into objects and makes possible amazing feats of balance and dexterity. Twitter and other constant-contact media create social proprioception. They give a group of people a sense of itself, making possible weird, fascinating feats of coordination,” says Thompson.

He writes about the value of Twitter for keeping in touch with friends, family and colleagues. But of course it’s now used to follow people we don’t know personally but are interested in, like Tim O’Reilly. It’s also valuable for tracking trends and events. It’s a form of “meme proprioception”, allowing us to follow ideas as they are being formed by people who think aloud or sometimes just get an inkling of an idea, relationship or interest that someone is developing.

For example, if someone is tweeting about books they’re reading, people they’re meeting and topics they’re exploring — all along a similar theme — then you can safely assume they will be doing something in that space soon. This is all very valuable, especially when following thought or business leaders to sense what their next big thing might be.

When I attended the Web4Dev conference last week in New York, the Twitter stream provided a way for attendees to comment on presentations, and also include non-attendees, in the back-channel conversation. It’s the first time I’ve experienced this happening and I found it useful, especially when someone was critical of what was being said in a presentation. It was also useful because there were concurrent sessions at the conference so I could have a sense of what was happening in the room next door.

I’m now a Twitterer because I see the value of it. But I do worry that at some point the value it delivers will be less than the time it demands and the information it overloads us with. This is where filtering is needed. For example, I followed O’Reilly for only a few days before unfollowing him simply because I don’t want to know about what he’s having for lunch or who he’s going out to dinner with. That information might be important to someone but not to me. It still takes up my time to read all of the unimportant tweets and time is something that we’re all increasingly short of. So if O’Reilly could let us know which tweets are serious (eg “Just gave a keynote presentation on Web 3.0″) and which are non-serious (eg “Just ate my first-ever boerewors roll”) that’d be sweet tweeting. And if someone works out a filtering mechanism that does just that for us, it would be just as nice.

After all, the power that tweeting gives someone is the same as that of Facebook status updates: it just begs for inconsequential or, worse, self-indulgent “loudspeaking”. The same platform is being used to tell the world that you’ve got indigestion from a greasy lunch or that you’ve just written a valuable paper on how mobile phones can be used in education. Further, the same platform is being used to share with real friends and family as well as followers who aren’t friends or family. There is an obvious problem with this.

So, though Twitter is definitely a good thing, we need more sophisticated filtering and aggregation tools to keep it adding value. Luckily its open application programming interface is already allowing people to do that. I don’t think we’re there yet but I’m hoping it’ll happen soon.

(Thanks Steve Song for getting me to use it!)

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